Britannia Hospital is the final film in what is an incredibly loose trilogy built around the character of Mick Travis, played in all three films by Malcolm McDowell. It’s undoubtedly the worst film in the “so-called trilogy” (as McDowell refers to it as such in O Lucky Man! commentary track), but when you are following up two masterpieces like If…. and O Lucky Man!, you are bound to fall flat. At the time of Lindsay Anderson’s passing in 1994, he had actually written a direct sequel to If…., which would completely undermine Britannia Hospital, because –SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!! – in this film, Mick Travis is murdered by a crazed doctor, and his head is used in a Frankensteinesque experiment gone wrong.
The film itself is a completely mess by design, with an incredibly loose, scattershot “plot” that is more or less about a day where the Queen Mother is visiting Britannia Hospital. The hospital is a metaphor for Thatcher’s Britain, with strikes at the door, private patients getting special treatment, an Idi Amin-like cannibalistic African dictator, and sinister experiments being carried out by Professor Millar (Graham Crowden). After being an anarchist student and a Yorkshire coffee salesman, Mick is now a reporter who is doing an expose on the hospital and somewhat corrupted by the system he was rebelling against.
Despite everything not quite gelling, its message of a nation being torn apart at its seams by Thatcherism, but also by an incompetent NHS and corrupt trade unions, is on full display. Anderson always identified as an anarchist, and his two most obvious cinematic influences are Jean Vigo and Luis Buñuel, also both anarchists. Buñuel had many great quotes, but one of his best was “I’m an anarchist, but I’m totally against the anarchists.” and I think Anderson could identify with that. The fact that he could tear viciously into both sides while maintaining a clearly left position was a fine balancing act, one that far too few people (never mind filmmakers) can pull off. It also makes for more interesting art, even if you sometimes pull up short. I would much rather see Lindsay Anderson fall flat on his face than one of Ken Loach’s weary agitprop Labour Party-approved films on austerity any day of the week.
It’s such a shame that Anderson was essentially blacklisted by the UK film establishment after this film, he was BY FAR the best director to come out of the Kitchen Sink Realism era of the ’60s so it’s a real crime. He discovered the Czech New Wave early on, a movement in cinema that moved freely between realism and surrealism, something If…. and O Lucky Man! do perfectly. Even after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, when the Soviets took control the films coming out of that country they still had a real free spirit to them for the next couple years.
When it comes to making comparisons with the previous two films, Britannia Hospital is very much what Shock Treatment is to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I actually really like Shock Treatment, but it really works only as its own oddity, not as a “sequel” to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I think the main problem here is that Mick Travis is very much a secondary character in the piece, more of a focus on him would probably have helped the film. McDowell did five features between 1982 and 1983, so maybe there were scheduling issues. I know he did the film for free (only his expenses were paid), and he wasn’t the only one: Alan Bates and Mark Hamill, who plays one of Mick’s crew, did as well. Hamill is a big Anglophile and just came over for a holiday since he was friends with McDowell. That’s how he appeared in the film which, given Star Wars, was a bit of a catch.
The disc from Indicator includes a high-def master, a BEHP audio interview with Anderson that serves as a commentary track, new interviews with some cast members and the editor Michael Ellis, theatrical and teaser trailers, and an image gallery. The booklet includes a new essay on the film, and archival interviews and diary entries from Anderson. The screenwriter David Sherwin also supplies some diary entries. The booklet also contains some of the contemporary critical response to the film which was mostly negative, although Mark E. Smith of The Fall would claim decades later that it was the best of the Mick Travis films. Surprisingly, McDowell isn’t interviewed for the disc, and they didn’t even license the old interview he did for the long out of print Region 1 Anchor Bay DVD back in 2001. McDowell’s personal celebration of Anderson, the documentary Never Apologize, would’ve been a fantastic addition as well.